Despite the old saying, it is indeed possible to teach an old dog new tricks, though it’s a bit more difficult to change their behaviors. But, according to Anne O’Neill, owner of Specialty Pet Training, all things are possible with positive reinforcement.
“Actually, you can teach an old dog any new skills, especially tricks,” Anne says. “I taught my Australian Cattle dog to flop on his side and ‘play dead’ at the age of 12. However, when it comes to behaviors, it can be a bit trickier since adult dogs adjust to change much more slowly compared to young puppies. But with some time, repetition and patience, you can definitely teach an old dog anything.”
This month, Anne offers some practical advice for training and interacting with both puppies and dogs.
Barking is due to the emotional state of the dog and in most cases is because the dog is stressed. Yelling, punishing and scolding a barking dog actually makes things worse. It is much like yelling at your child for crying. It only causes more stress which causes more barking. Treat the reason why the dog is barking, and you will see it improve.
Socialization is imperative for puppies from the age of 6 weeks to at least 4 months. Waiting for them to get all their shots at 6 months severely impacts the dog’s ability to accept their world as an adult without fear. However, you can be safe and socialize your young puppy to guests in the home, grooming, leashes, noises, surfaces, etc. and not put your puppy in danger of catching parvo. Never try to socialize a puppy at a dog park, instead join a puppy class.
Holding your hand out for a stranger dog to sniff
Do not offer your hand to a dog you don’t know. This is the fastest way to get bit if the dog is fearful and aggressive. Don’t worry - he can smell you from 20 feet away so letting him sniff you isn’t necessary. Instead stand there and turn sideways, talk sweetly and allow the dog to come up to you. If he doesn’t then do not try to pet the dog. Let it be his choice.
Dogs display stress signals when they are feeling uncomfortable. The most important ones you should look for are slow or lowered body movement, turning/moving away and licking their lips. If a dog is doing this, they are starting to get stressed, and you should move them away from what is stressing them. Once you start watching and respecting your dog’s body language you will find your relationship will grow stronger.
Never punish a growl. This is the dog literally telling you that what is happening is threatening. Even if you don’t agree – this is a warning that you should listen to, change your response and help the dog to not feel threatened. Punishment might make the dog stop growling, but it doesn’t change his opinion of the threat. Then you will end up with an unexpected reaction because the dog stops warning you.
Expecting a dog to alert you that they need to go outside is one big mistake people make. Be proactive and take them out every hour, any time they get up from a nap and any time they are active. Puppy pads only teach the dog to use the bathroom in the house. Instead, be proactive and take the dog out when they squat or put them in the crate so they learn to ‘hold it’. Punishment only makes them hide it from you.
Some people think crate training is cruel. I relate it to putting your child in a play pen while you cook dinner. Not cruel at all. Imagine having to raise a baby and never being able to put them somewhere safe while you complete tasks. That is what a crate is – a safe place for your puppy to stay while you are at work, sleeping, cooking, etc. This is also where they learn to hold it and build bladder control. It is super important that the crate be large enough for the puppy to completely stretch out tip-to-tail. They grow when they sleep and forcing the dog to curl up in a small crate or with too much bedding can cause problems with growth.
Jumping up on guests
One of the biggest issues with large breed dogs is jumping up on guests. The most important thing pet parents need to do is to put the dog on a leash before guests enter the home and keep him on the leash until he completely settles down. In many cases the jumping is a greeting, and after about 15 minutes the greeting is over, and the dog has moved on. Have treats out and ready any time the dog sits so he will want to repeat that behavior on his own. If you are consistent with this routine every single time a guest comes in the home – you’ll see results in no time.
While dogs can learn certain things quickly, they cannot perform them in any scenario without some practice. Dogs learn the quickest from repetition and consistency. So, if you do something once, he learns just a little. If you do it every single time with the same scenario – the dog will learn quicker. So don’t give up – keep at it. Children go to school for 12 years – give the dog some time to learn too.